Wednesday, 3 March 2010

February on my iPod!!!!

Yet more dubstep filled my ears in February, as I did my usual thing and went completely overboard and obsessive over the stuff. 

Not that I'm complaining - dubstep is phenomenal! I truly believe it to be the most modern and timely genre to have emerged in the last few years. The heavy grooves, icy synth lines and sparse sense of melancholy that traverses nearly every dubstep track fit like musical gloves onto most people's daily vistas of urban jungles, council estate towers, illuminated financial districts, bustling and overcrowded public transport services, and all the emotional confusion that these locations automatically conjure up in human souls. It's the music of lonely people in a busy, overflowing world, as true and emotive as a Dylan ballad or the mournful atmosphere of Slowdive's Pygmalion.

Skream is something of the prodigal son of dubstep, at the tender age of 21. He's been a feature of the scene since he was 15 or so, and although his first, eponymous, album was poorly received, his EPs and singles, such as Midnight Request Line/I (single, 2005, Tempa) are considered must-haves among clubbers and journos alike. "Midnight Request Line" is something of an anthem for dubstep fans, and is surely the genre's most famous track. And with good reason - it's infectious, carried by a supreme bass line, with brilliant synth gurgles and jittery effects. The same consistent brilliance can be found on Skreamizm Vol.2 (2006, Tempa), possibly the strongest of his Skreamizm series of EPs. "Blipstream" carries the same nocturnal, futuristic vibe as "Midnight Request Line", with wobbly bass, dark atmospherics and a general aura of drifting nocturnal urbanity. It also -as does the whole EP- reminds me a lot of Burial's debut. It's dark but not necessarily cold. Funky but slow-paced. Great modern stoner music! "0800 Dub" is much more trance-y, close to ambient elctronica or slow-paced IDM, with a fantastic synth hook throughout and ghostly sampled vocals, whilst "Deep Concentration" is pure funky dub and "Morning Blues" is all jittery electronics, hints of hip-hop and dance. It's certainly one of the best EPs out there, and proves the kid has talent.

This is also a good opportunity to re-appraise Burial's self-titled debut album (2006, Hyperdub). I didn't take to it with quite the same speed and enthusiasm that I did Untrue, and I still consider the latter to be the better album, but Burial is still awesome. It has a distinctly conceptual feel, embodied in the artwork with its aerial picture of South London. It feels like a nocturnal trip through the city's dark, damp streets, gazed out through the windows of a near-empty bus (one track is even called "Night Bus"), from the driving rhythms of the opening track "Distant Lights" (again an evocative title) until the effects-laden, mysterious and sparse closer "Pirates". Voices are fleeting, ghostly and distorted, adding to the sense of loneliness and isolation, whilst Burial expertly weaves found-sounds, samples and pulsating grooves together to leave you with a grim, unsettling and deeply emotional whole. No wonder he remains the genre's biggest star. He's a genius, simple as.

Slightly different from your average dubstep, and proof that the genre is evolving and globalising, is American producer Flying Lotus' sumptuous Los Angeles (2008, Warp). It may be nearly 2 years old, but fuck it, it gets ALBUM OF THE MONTH status! On it, Flying Lotus takes apart different aspects of modern electronic music and recombines the separate elements, be they thumping dub bass lines, jittery beats, aggressive breaks or swooping synth lines. Each track is short, but he packs so much into them it's unreal, so they blend into one-another, creating a frantic, ever-shifting and captivating atmosphere that took me completely by surprise. You find yourself lurching from the post-dance grooves of "Beginners Falafel" to the dreamy modern soul of "RobertaFlack", always finding something surprising and unexpected in each track. This is the future of dubstep, hip-hop, IDM and break-beat all rolled into one! And he'll be live at Fabric soon, Londoners!

Last dubstep album for this month was Degenerate (2005, Planet Mu) by Vex'd, one of the very first full-length albums the genre ever produced. Sadly, Vex'd, a duo, have gone their separate ways, with one more album to be released this year as some sort of funky epitaph. But what a legacy! Their output may be slight, but Vex'd were among the biggest innovators of the UK underground, and they show it on Degenerates, a truly forward-thinking album that maintains the massive bass grooves of traditional dubstep, but moves things closer to rave and techno culture. The percussion is harsh and cold, mechanical even and tracks are long. The sonic effects, ranging from highly distorted sampled vocals to freaky surges of synth noise and unexpected bleeps and blurps, are equally aggressive, sharp shards of white musical light that surge out of the industrial mix. But the album still grooves like a motherfucker, "Pop Pop V.I.P" being a particularly infectious stomper. The CD comes with a second disk of singles, which make it quite a lot to sit through, but if you want to take your party to another level, there are few better, more intelligent or more drastic dubstep albums out there.

I did take a breather from dubstep at various points throughout the month (though with albums by Benga, Kode9+Spaceape and Boxcutter winging their way towards me in the post, methinks March will be pretty dubbed up as well!), and returned to my older indulgences in electro and good ole rock.

But let's do some travelling first. Because, apart from dubstep, 2010 has so far been the year of "World" music for me. 

Thanks to the ever-wonderful Wire magazine, I have discovered the lost delight that is Ethiopian music. OK, not that lost, as it has a rave cult following, including director Jim Jarmusch, and this has given us the seminal Ethiopiques series. It was through Jarmusch's Broken Flowers soundtrack that I discovered Mulatu Astatqe, whose Ethiopiques 4: Ethio-Jazz et Musique Instrumentale (1998; Buda Records) is the stand-out of the series, and most popular. It includes the classic "Yèkèrmo Sèw", a masterpiece of subtle, funky jazz. It perfectly encapsulates the Ethiopian sound in its 4+ minutes: smooth, sexy percussion; snappy piano motifs; powerful, chiming horn bursts; and a general atmosphere that is both familiar and delightfully exotic, the soundtrack to a boat cruise down the Nile. Even by African standards (and I'll admit to not being an expert - my knowledge up til now only extended to an adoration of Fela Kuti, and a familiarity of North African "Rai" music that comes from growing up in France), Ethiopian music has a sense of fusion. Where traditional Asian and European music often developed in some form of isolation, Africa was always at a crossroads, and when the sounds of the descendants of African slaves started wafting back across the air waves from the USA and Caribbean, in the form of jazz, be-bop, funk, soul, blues, reggae and even rock, Africa was quick to take note. But there was also influences coming in from a wide range of other areas: salsa and flamenco from Latin America and Spain, chanson from France, traditional singing from Islamic countries. And no country appears to have fused so many influences quite as much as Ethiopia. Ethio Jazz is at times soulful, with keening sax lines and slow, melodic tempos; at others it appears to rage with the same verve and power as the best free jazz (though always more restrained), with guitar solos evoking Sonny Sharrock or even Hendrix. It's smooth jazz with an edge; Western-influenced, but with the sounds of Berber North African drifting into the mix. In other words, it's pretty unique.

Toumani Diabaté sits in another spectrum of African music. His is much more traditional, focusing on lessons and styles that have existed in families like his for generations. He is something of a bard, a "griot" in French, who uses his music as a way of telling stories and evoking imagery that is immediate and intense. Suffice to say that New Ancient Strings (1999, Hannibal), which I discovered by chance through Amazon, is therefore one of the most "true"-sounding records I've heard in a while. Every sound feels authentic and real, steeped in tradition and the wisdom of centuries-old philosophy. It's a sparse album, much more so than his more recent collaborations with the late, great Ali Farka Touré, with Diabaté's kora, a peculiar, and very complicated-looking, traditional west African harp/luth, taking the full centre stage. And it's marvellous. I was left wondering why I'd never heard one before - the shame! It's a graceful, emotional sound, delicate and fleeting, immediately conjuring up visions of the desert sun, of drifting marabout boats and small, mysterious cities of mud and straw. The evocative power of African music, as I mentioned with Mulatu Astatqe, is pretty much unparalleled, and every spin of New Ancient Strings sends me on a journey. Fancy coming along?

But one country that can match those of Africa in terms of musical transportation is, of course, India, and who better to introduce me to the sounds of the subcontinent than Ravi Shankar? The Beatles' mentor is one of the developing world's biggest international stars, and a master of the sitar, the sumptuous, droning "guitar" that has come to define Indian music. His first album, Music of India: Three Ragas (1956, HMV) is a benchmark of Indian, and even "World" music as a whole, bringing the traditional sounds of this massive and mysterious country to a wider, Western audience, and laying the foundations that would eventually lead to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was also a certain influence on the likes of LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, with the long, sustained sitar notes and minimal percussion seem like a template for the New York drone of a few years later. Ragas are perfect at evoking specific times of day, and are named as such (morning or evening, for example), making Three Ragas a dreamy, out-of-body listening experience.

Along with New Ancient Strings and Los Angeles, the biggest contender for Album of the Month was By The Throat by Ben Frost (2009, Bedroom Community), a truly wonderful surprise and a striking and original album featuring some of the most out-there elctronica I'd heard in a while. I've seen Aussie-born Icelandic resident Frost's music described as being "ambient", but this is a far cry from the calm, melodic atmospherics of Eno or Eluvium, or even the heavy drone of Windy and Carl. From the very first track, "Killshot", this is an assault, as rumbling bass synths are overlaid with sheets of white noise; these dark, piercing swirls hit you and then recede, like a cold arctic wind gushing out of an icy night sky. On the immediate follow-up, "The Carpathians" (how's that for a gothic reference?), wolves snarl and growl over doom-like piano and ghostly effects, creating a pervasive sense of unease and fear. Sure, at times decayed piano notes and delicate strings lure you into a false sense of security and you feel this may become a modern-day Discreet Music, but then on "Peter Venkam Pt.1" we're treated to jagged cello and ghostly sampled cries, whilst on "Leo Needs a New Pair of Shoes", dry banjo picking and deep, repetitive piano arpeggios evoke John Carpenter's Halloween soundtrack before more glitchy electronic noise kicks in, and the sense of unease is back, bigger and more pressing than before. This is -and maybe this is a theme today- an evocative, atmospheric album. Images of cold grey skies, lost forests and circling packs of wolves played across my mind as I listened the first time, and there is nothing more seductive in music than an album that takes you away from your banal daily routine and into a new world, even if it is one as disquieting as the world of By The Throat.

Time is pressing, so I may have to leave out the rave review of my latest Skullflower discovery, The Paris Working, and push back my review of Sunn O)))'s latest, and my favourite Six Organs of Admittance album, Dark Noontide. Next month, I guess. I will leave the music of the month with a write up on Swedish DJ The Field's From Here We Go Sublime (2007, Kompakt), which may just be the most exhilarating electro-pop/dance album I've discovered since the first Leftfield album. The Field sounds nothing like Leftfield, mind. From Here We Go Sublime is a delightful collection of dreamy and trance-like dance tunes, all masterfully crafted and unbelievably catchy. At first, I was convinced I would find it samey, but I can't seem to go a day without giving it's heart-warming and melancholic tunes a few spins, with "A Paw In My Face", "Everyday" and "Silent", which have all wormed their way into my dance playlists.

Finally, a little word on a couple of movies. Movie of the month has to be A Single Man by Tom Ford (2010). I have not enjoyed myself at the movies so much in well over a year, which is saying something considering it's a bit of a grim proposition. The scintillating Colin Firth (surely the Oscar-winner?) delivers a career-defining performance as a lonely man still reeling from the death of his (male) partner of 16 years, and plotting his own passage from this life. We follow him over the course of this prospective last day, and he's deals with his drunken best friend (Julianne Moore, excellent as always), his neighbours, a tantalising male prostitute, his job, and the tentative seductions of one of his young students (played with poise by the unbelievably handsome Nicholas Hoult, whose figure, face and body Tom Ford seems to sublimate with his camera). Along the way, Firth's character remembers his lost lover, ruminates on the status of a gay relationship's value in the eyes of society in conservative sixties America, and contemplates the option of returning to his native England. It's a dream-like, graceful film, beautifully filmed and with a marvellous score, and is bound to have you suppressing more than a few sniffles by the end. A stunning debut.

Equally composed and intelligent is Doubt (2008, directed by John Patrick Shanley, adapted from his own play), an excellent drama built around a dour headmistress nun's suspicions about her school's resident priest. Meryl Streep, plays the headmistress with typical intelligence, and perfectly conveys her character’s repression, fussiness and restraint, confirming her status as America’s most accomplished actress today. The doubts, only alluded to, but concerning the priest's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) relationship with one of the boys, permeate the entire film, creating an atmosphere of increased tension as the action slowly unfolds. Shanley perfectly creates a sense of repression, of things always unsaid, and the fear and resentment that this atmosphere imbues in the school's occupants. The priest's guilt is never proved, and even an intervention with the boy's mother (portrayed by Viola Davis, in a scene-stealing performance) fails to bring Streep's Sister Aloysius closer to the truth. But what if she's right? It's a challenging and troubling film, and one well worth renting.

So, another month gone, as election fever hots up in the UK. Labour has closed the gap, but why are we bogged down in personality politics instead of focusing on issues? Is it because none of the parties really have any clear policies? Or just that they realise they are as supine and fawning as each other? Labour or Conservative, all we'll get is more financial strife, relentless war in Iraq and Afghanistan and bowing down to religious zealots. Vote Green. At least they have principles.

Oh, and RIP Keith Alexander and Michael Foot.